May 112009

At university, I’m currently studying a subject entitled “RF & Applied Electromagnetics”, and at the moment, we’re looking at the issue of electromagnetic compatibility.

One thing that has come up both here, and browsing through the ARRL Amateur Radio handbook (I have the 1975 edition) is that above all, circuit layout has some of the most profound effects on how a circuit behaves.

What I did not realise, is just how low in frequency these issues show up.  The physical construction of many electronic components often means that, far from being a “pure” component, they in fact exhibit both resistive and reactive components.  I understood this occurred a lot in the VHF and UHF… which is a good reason why many homebrew radios stop in the lower HF.  These effects in fact, start to become visible as low as 14MHz.

This got me thinking… the typical circuit design workflow is some variant of this:

  1. Draw up the schematic in a schematic capture frontend
  2. Feed this into the circuit analysis package, inspect the simulation results.
  3. If unsatisfied, tweak schematic then go back to step 2.  Else feed into PCB layout package.
  4. Lay out the PCB
  5. Get PCB manufactured and build circuit.
  6. Do testing, tweaking component values… maybe go back to step 3.

It seems to me… the workflow should be more like the following:

  1. Draw up the schematic
  2. Lay out the PCB
  3. Feed the PCB layout and circuit schematic into the simulator, inspect results.
  4. If results are unsatisfactory, tweak layout and schematic, else get PCB manufactured and build the circut.
  5. Test & tweak

One criticism I have of gEDA, it seems to treat the schematic and the PCB as being two different things.  I find it awkward to move from gschem to PCB and back again when designing a circuit.  I also haven’t figured out simulation as yet.

I’d say the behaviour of the circuit has more to do with the way the board is layed out, than with just the components alone, and as such, I feel a modern EDA system should reflect this.  Qucs does seem to be approaching what is going on, in that you can simulate a stripline or similar PCB object in your circut.  I think it has possibly the greatest promise, but alas, it can’t yet do PCB layouts itself.  Time will tell I guess.

The commercial suites… well, I’ve used Electronics Workbench for years… I really must say I find the simulation in that much more intuitive than working with SPICE or Qucs… there is perhaps something worth looking into with its interface.  Multisim is more like traditional SPICE… but still retains some of the old feel of EWB.  However, all of them seem to simulate the schematic… which is fine… but you do miss out on a lot of what goes on in the circuit.

I’ve been getting used to Qucs… and so far, I quite like it.  Once again though, we’re looking at a simulation of an ideal circuit, under ideal conditions.  That is… pass a 100MHz sinusoid through a circuit: the resistors remain resistive, the capacitors store charge as they should and the inductors continue to add inertia.  In the real world, many resistors and capacitors become inductive in nature, and inductors look more like capacitors, depending on the physical construction of the component.  Mutual inductance, and capacitive coupling are also problems in the real world.

With today’s modern hardware, I figure the computing overheads to model how a physical circuit would behave based on the layout, is certainly a lot more feasible than it was when SPICE was first conceived.  SPICE was good for its time… but with the modern world requiring a higher level of engineering for its electronics, I think it has had its day now.